People in Nottinghamshire have been benefiting from virtual legal advice during lockdown thanks to students from Nottingham Law School.
Students working at its Legal Advice Centre usually provide face-to-face support from its base at Nottingham Trent University’s City campus.
However, when the Centre had to close its doors due to COVID-19 in March, staff and students began to devise new ways of working to ensure clients continued to be represented during lockdown.
The students, many of whom have returned home during the pandemic, have made themselves available to the Nottinghamshire community by setting up virtual conferences with clients, meeting with their peers and supervisors online, and writing up their research and case work from home.
Jack Stuart, 24, is studying to become a barrister and was recently named as a ‘Rising Star’ in the Volunteer of the Year category at the East Midlands Charity Awards 2020.
During lockdown he has been advising clients at various stages of their cases, from pre-action, to settlement negotiations and advice on appeals.
He said: “As physical presence in our courthouses and law offices has downsized, clients’ cases remain unresolved and many more people find themselves in the middle of new disputes, and we have been pleased to continue offering our services to those who need them.
“In that sense, our work is still as vibrant as ever, and we have had to adapt to new ways of working.
“It has been encouraging to see that we can still make ourselves available to clients needing help in these new circumstances, and the flexibility of technology has helped us keep our services going with minimal disruption.”
The students are also ensuring that client confidentiality is adhered to by carrying out conversations in private areas of their households and appropriately managing documentation.
The Legal Advice Centre was the first of its kind when it was granted an ABS (Alternative Business Structure) licence to operate as a fully regulated law firm in 2015.
Supervised by qualified solicitors, students support clients with a range of legal issues either through modules within the curriculum, or by volunteering in addition to their study.
They work in areas such as employment, business support and commercial law, social justice, criminal law, family law, community legal issues and tribunal and court representation.
Harry Fraser, 28, is currently on the Legal Practice Course, with ambitions to become a commercial lawyer.
He has been working with three other students to advise a client with a number of potential claims against their employer.
He said: “Working this way has taught me how important it is as a solicitor to be confident in myself to find solutions without first looking to others for advice.
“As a team we’re all pro-active and well organised which has been a massive help.
“Working this way has re-enforced how important it is to be a good team member when faced with challenging and unfamiliar circumstances.
“Speaking regularly with likeminded students during isolation has really helped my general wellbeing during lockdown. It felt good to focus on something and help someone with their problem during a troubling time.”
The Centre also works with the national charity, the Free Representation Unit (FRU), to provide pro bono representation at Social Security and Employment Tribunals. The Centre is the only FRU provider outside of London.
More than £4 million in benefits and compensation has been recovered for its clients in the last six years.
Annete Kalombodza, 21, is studying Bachelor of Laws (LLB Law) and working towards becoming a solicitor.
She has been advising on a case involving whistleblowing, harassment and discrimination.
She said: “A key skill in the legal profession is the ability to show sympathy to a client when they are discussing their legal issue.
“It is important to preserve the human interaction in the legal profession, which requires being sensitive to the needs of others.
“However, while using virtual means of communication the level of support is altered.
“As a volunteer, the way I have tried to support clients during the pandemic is by providing a space for the client to be able to speak freely.”
Laura Pinkney, head of the Legal Advice Centre, said: “Being flexible and resilient are very important skills for students to take into their working life.
“As more legal work begins to move online in the future, this experience has taught them how to adapt their work and manage client relationships remotely, both as individuals and as a team.
“I’m very proud of the way the students and supervisors very quickly changed their ways of working so our clients continue to receive advice during a very stressful time.
“They’ve been exceptionally professional throughout and we’re pleased to continue to support our local community in this way.”
By Olimpia Zagnat
Featured photo credit: Nottingham Trent University